They’d think I was Norman Bates.’ I thought he would get bored with teaching after the first few weeks. But he still merrily belts out Gilbert and Sullivan between breaks. Or does Hitler impersonations from his latest favourite film, Downfall: ‘ Danken Gott Himmler supplied us with enough cyanide pills!’
Recently, a disconcerting image started to form in my mind of Fred still tutoring the Chinese from home as his parents shuffled about on their Zimmer frames.
‘So, how long will you be doing this Skype teaching lark, then?’ I asked, affecting an airy tone on a recent dusk walk at Polesden Lacey.
‘Indefinitely,’ said Fred. ‘It’s the perfect occupation. Undemanding. No commuting. I can be my own boss – work the hours I choose so that I can fit it around other pursuits.’
‘Do these include finding a flat in the New Year?’ asked his father hopefully.
When we are bored, Betty and I like to eavesdrop. To our mild surprise, Fred has taken to tutoring like a duck to water.
Many of Fred’s students adopt what I imagine they think to be cool-sounding Western monikers: Peter Pan, Melody Woo, Tina Ping… But which really seem more redolent of casually racist comic names from a 1970s sitcom.
With a few exceptions, they all seem to hold their Surrey Mr Chips in high esteem. ‘You very handsome, Mr Fred!’ Tina Ping recently remarked.
‘You are very handsome,’ corrected Mr Fred.
Any glimpse into English suburban life is pounced on with relish. ‘Ah, dog! Dog!’ exclaimed Jimmy Tong from Shaanxi province when Lupin was heard barking at the Ocado delivery man.
‘Do you eat dogs?’ Fred then asked (steering a tad off pronouns, I thought).
‘No, Mr Fred, I would never eat dog!’ said an indignant Jimmy Tong, adding that his elderly relatives did.
When Mr Fred isn’t teaching, he has taken to cooking dinner for everyone (his exotic dishes putting my almost nightly spaghetti bolognese to shame).
‘What’s the Galloping Gourmet cooking tonight?’ Mr Home Front eagerly asks whenever I pick him up from the station.
Meanwhile, Betty, irritated beyond belief by her brother’s new saintly persona, uses every opportunity to remind us of his failings.
‘Oh my God!’ comes the cry of despair. ‘He’s left the hot water/gas/lights on again!’
‘Cut the boy some slack,’ I reply. ‘It’s chicken tagine tonight.’ I was, at 17, the youngest ordinand in the Church of England. I thought I’d become the oldest, at 81, but it turns out that I am now too old. (They have lowered the upper age limit to 65, to take in to account the cost of training a priest).
So I thought I would try to become a licensed lay minister (LLM) instead; for them, the upper age limit is a bit more flexible.
Recently, there was a meeting to classify this at a diocese meeting. I went along, dreading the thought of lots of ‘management speak’ and my worst fears were realised: ‘delivering transactional operations efficiently whilst proactively partnering teachers and managers to develop and implement effective action…’
God help us. It takes three years to become an LLM and it would take another three years to understand this. I suddenly realised that it was not for me.
My fellow candidates, all 24 of them, were a dismal lot – provincial nobodies, I thought snobbishly. Not a fine bishop or archbishop in sight. When the time came to introduce ourselves, we were all, myself apart, reticent to the point of anonymity.
I boasted of having been a journalist for 58 years (true) and having, in the 1970s, worked briefly as press secretary to Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury.
This did not go down well. I don’t suppose most of the no-hopers had ever heard of Michael Ramsey. No doubt, they were adherents of Justin Welby, ‘the businessman in a dog collar’, as I call him, who is dabbling in politics when he should be trying to fill his empty pews.
A very fat man sitting next to me had come hundreds of miles for this meeting because the LLM course in his diocese had been shut down, due to there being no candidates.
For supper, we were served a revolting quiche, my least favourite dish, followed by a chocolate mousse, a typical Anglican concoction.
Things brightened up a bit when a vicar friend of mine – and a great favourite with all the bishops – began to speak. She is an attractive girl (woman) and she even came to see me in hospital.
She has the precious gift of telling it like it is. She told us what it takes to become a priest and the others were suitably impressed and, I fear, intimidated…
On my way out, having achieved nothing and got nowhere, I gave her a copy of the current Oldie.
‘Does this mean you think I am old,’ she bridled.
‘No, it is me that is too old for all this,’ I said.
Michael Ramsey, when I was at Lambeth, used to start each day by banging his head on his desk and saying three times, ‘I hate the Church of England!’ I understand what he meant. Who is Jesus, Our Blessed Lord, amid all this ecclesiastical bureaucracy? I have to say I am now very glad that I never got ordained into the Church of England.
‘Yes, and the Church of England is glad, too,’ said an acerbic friend of mine.